Rural women lead the defence of communal lands in Latin America

Despite gender discrimination in their own communities, women in Latin America are risking their lives to defend their lands.

Beatriz Olivera researches the effects of the extractives and energy industries in Latin America for the Mexican organisation Fundar, a member of RLIE and Publish What You Pay. In her work, she sees again and again inconsistencies between women and men. Women are seldom allowed to own land. They play a smaller role in making decisions about land use. And women suffer more from the effects of extractive projects than men do.

On 15 October, the International Day of Rural Women, much of the attention will focus on rural gender gaps in poverty, health and the effects of climate change. But in other ways, far from being victims, rural women are consistently at the vanguard of the resistance to the invasion and militarisation of their land by mining and energy companies. From Colombia to Honduras to Mexico, women have worked as organisers and spokespersons. They’ve blocked access roads with boulders, led marches and demanded a seat at the policy table.

“Although they’re fighting and defending their land, they’re defending land that doesn’t belong to them, land that’s owned by men,” Olivera said.

In Latin America, there are few mechanisms by which rural women can acquire land, Olivera said. Just 8 percent of rural women are land owners. And decisions about whether to lease or sell communal lands to extractives companies are made by men, largely owing to pervasive machismo culture. At the policymaking level, women represent a minority of voices in legislatures and board rooms.

Meanwhile, rural women bear a disproportionate share of the burden of extractives activities and fewer of the benefits, like mining jobs or land lease income. While region-wide data is scarce, anecdotes abound. The concentration of male mine workers from out of town corresponds to an increase in prostitution and sex trafficking. Domestic and sexual violence against women increases, often on the part of the extractives companies’ private security forces. If livestock or water sources are killed or contaminated, for instance by cyanide runoff from gold mines, the burden falls on the women to seek alternative provisions.

Against this backdrop of inequality, women have taken the lead in organising the opposition to extractives projects. In Peru, for example, Máxima Acuña won a Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her campaign that in 2015 halted the expansion of a toxic gold mining operation on her land. “I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure,” she told New Internationalist. “Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?”

In Oaxaca, Mexico, a wind farm project went forward after inadequate consultation with the local community. When protesters gathered to reject the construction, armed security fired warning shots toward the crowd and, according to one farmer’s account, held a boy hostage. They let him go only after a group of women charged the guards and dragged the boy away. The villagers have since formed a community organisation to oppose energy projects. “Our land is sacred,” said one mother who belongs to the group.

With alarming frequency, women have risked their lives in the fight. As the assassinations of Berta Cáceres (another Goldman winner) and Margarita Murillo in Honduras gravely illustrate, the fight for conservation and indigenous land rights is perilous work.

“At Fundar, we believe it’s important to document how women organise to protect their lands and to support them,” Olivera said. She’s presently working to document the ways extractives industries disproportionately harm women — and indigenous women in particular — and will release a new report next year on the subject.

Olivera said they’re also bringing together civil society organisations from across Latin America working to defend the rights of rural and indigenous women against both extractives companies and gender discrimination in their own communities.

“Women are playing a key role in defending their lands, even though in most cases they are not the owners of the land,” she says. “It’s now up to policymakers to find a way to provide land rights to women.”

This article is based on the work of our member Fundar, part of RLIE
Join the conversation about rural women and the important role they play for community rights on Twitter with #ruralwomen
Read our guide on how to include gender perspectives into natural resource governance.

Indigenous communities and their right to self-determination

Latin America and the Caribbean have a great diversity of indigenous peoples, with almost 600 peoples representing 12.8% of the general population and even 40% of the population in rural areas. In this same region, there’s also been an intense development of oil, gas and mining activities – especially in the last three decades – due to rising mineral and hydrocarbon prices.

The fact that Latin America has become the main recipient of global mining investment is a major factor in this activity increase. These developments generate great pressure on the lands and territories historically occupied by indigenous and tribal peoples.

Indigenous populations are in many cases subject to exclusion, poverty and marginalization, which makes it difficult to enforce their rights against mining companies and States. However, many indigenous peoples in these regions are ready to fight and demand that their rights to owning lands, territories and natural resources are respected.

The right to free, prior and informed consent has been set as one of the main avenues to guarantee indigenous peoples’ participation in the decision-making processes which affect them. However, this same avenue is being used by States, with support from business actors, to impose mining projects on indigenous territories. This leads to companies and governments creating non-binding consultations, which fail to take indigenous peoples’ opinions into account.

These dodgy consultations, which ultimately deliver permits to companies, usually fail to provide the necessary information to those affected. This can lead to companies coercing or intimidating the indigenous peoples involved. Ignoring the cultural significance of these peoples and undermining their trust shows a remarkable lack of respect by States and companies in the consultation process.

Therefore, on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, it is vital to remember that the right to consultation needs to be directly linked to the right to self-determination and to land, territory and natural resources, to be truly meaningful. This is a valuable opportunity to remind Latin American States to fulfill their obligations and take steps to ensure these rights before granting extractive projects. The only way to protect the enormous cultural and ecological diversity of the region is to respect all forms of communities that extend across the continent.


1 Naciones Unidas (2015), State of the world’s indigenous peoples, Autor, available at http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/2015/sowip2volume-ac.pdf

2 Ballón, Eduardo (2016), Balance: Transparencia de las Industrias Extractivas en América Latina durante el superciclo de las materias primas, RLIE: Lima, available at http://redextractivas.org/images/EstudioBalanceRegionalTransparencia-red.pdf

3 CIDH (2015), Pueblos indígenas, comunidades afrodescendientes y recursos naturales: Protección de derechos humanos en el contexto de actividades de extracción, explotación y desarrollo, Autor: Washington DC, available at http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/informes/pdfs/IndustriasExtractivas2016.pdf

Extractivism in Latin America: the violations of rights

Latin America is at a crossroads. Either measures are put in to transition from the extractive model on which the region has become increasingly dependent in recent decades, or the situation in the region will become completely unsustainable in social, environmental and climatic terms, and even in fiscal and economic terms. The high prices of minerals and hydrocarbons, according to a study by the Latin American Network on Extractive Industries (RLIE), have quadrupled between 1990 and 2011, making the region more attractive and profitable for companies, as shown in 2013 with 27% of investments in mining exploration worldwide occurring in Latin America. At the same time, Latin American countries have it seen this as a major source of public revenues, direct foreign investment, economic growth and increasing foreign trade. That is, a range of indicators that governments like to advertise as proof of good governance.

However, on the other side of the coin is the social, environmental and climate damage which governments, businesses and international initiatives, such as the Initiative for Transparency in Extractive Industries (EITI), rarely include in their reports on the development of mining activities. Nor do they include information on the systematic violations of human rights, especially the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples that are affected by extractive activities. As journalist and Uruguayan researcher Raúl Zibechi rightly points out, “extractivism” creates a permanent state of emergency because “laws, legal protections of local populations disappear with the extractive model.”

Given this, it should be no surprise that the exploitation of minerals and hydrocarbons, but also other types of extractive activities such as hydroelectricity, forestry and agriculture, among others, is a permanent cause of social and environmental conflict in Latin America. To give just one example, the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America (OCMAL) has identified at least 210 conflicts caused by 220 mining projects and affecting 315 communities. In the list of countries where these conflicts occur, Mexico takes the lead with 37 cases, followed closely by Peru and Chile with 36 cases each, Argentina with 26 and, as further away, Colombia with 13. However, it is also important to mention the situation of countries like Honduras, which has fewer conflicts (in this case four), but where violence, harassment, criminalization and murder of defenders of human rights is particularly flagrant.

According to a study by Global Witness published in 2015, of the 116 assassinations of environmental and land activists in 2014 that could be identified (because of serious information gaps this figure is likely to be higher), three-quarters occurred in Latin America . The most dangerous country is Honduras, where there have been 111 murders of activists between 2002 and 2014, of which 40% of the victims were indigenous. The development of hydropower, mining and agro-industrial activity seem to be the main cause of these violent deaths.

The most recent case occurred only a few weeks ago, when Berta Caceres, a Lenca indigenous leader and member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was gruesomely murdered. Another victim of that attack, Gustavo Castro from the Mexican organisation Otros Mundos Chiapas and the Mesoamerican Movement against the Mining Extractive Model, has not been allowed to leave Honduras, despite the risk to his life. Days later, Nelson Garcia also from COPINH, was assassinated. This Council, as well as a number of organisations and national, regional and international actors, claim that these were not isolated cases, instead being part of a general trend of attacks on defenders of indigenous lands. In particular, they point out the direct links with the hydroelectric project Agua Zarca and place the blame on the company Desarrollos Energy.

This shows the enormous interests behind extractive projects and how entrenched corruption and collusion are within the countries of our region, where justice for these murders is rare and no impunity measures are put in place to ensure non-repetition of such acts. The attacks on Berta, Gustavo and Nelson and the official investigation that followed shows how governments join forces with companies to carry out projects to place their interests over those of the populations living in the territories that are invaded and occupied systematically by extractive activities.

Now, with the fall in the prices of minerals and hydrocarbons, the situation is exacerbating the risks, with a new scenario opening up. The decline in profitability of projects, and in generating public revenue, is being offset by an increase in production, leading to an expansion of the extractive frontier. This is accompanied by a weakening of institutions and of social and environmental regulation, neutralisation of human rights legislation, reduction and closure of civic space, increased repression, limited access to information and tax regression. The intention is to carry on with the extractive model at all costs, no matter who likes it, leading the region to a race to the bottom.

In this context, the need for alternatives to extractivism is increasingly urgent. To this end, the participation of the populations, especially those who live and love the lands they live in, is needed, such as Bertha, the COPINH and many other people throughout the Americas. Therefore, the attack on the defenders of the lands is an attack against all people, against humanity, because, besides the loss of lives, it undermines the construction of other models and lifestyles that do not endanger the populations and the environment in the region. These need to be approaches that seek to protect the entire planet, if we take into account the impact of mining activity on climate change.

That is why we join the call by RLIE and PWYP for justice for Berta and Nelson, and for the safety of Gustavo and COPINH. We demand that these and all other attacks against activists and defenders are investigated, that the real perpetrators are brought to justice and that measures to ensure non-repetition be established.

#JusticiaParaBerta / #JusticeForBerta

#SeguridadParaGustavo / #SafetyForGustavo

Follow us on Twitter: @RLIE_

Aroa is the Coordinator of the Latin American Network on Extractive Industries (RFIE) and a member of PWYP’s Global Council and of the PWYP Board

Extractive industries in a resource and climate constrained world

Two weeks ago, a prominent international initiative on transparency in the extractive sector gathered in Lima, Peru. This was the first time that the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) has met in Latin America for its global conference since the initiative was founded in 2003.

Last week, a high profile environmental and indigenous rights activist, Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras. Known for her long-standing opposition to the region’s biggest hydropower project, the four Agua Zarca giant dams, Berta was assassinated in her own home by gunmen. Gustavo Castro, an anti-mining activist was with her at the time and is believed to have also been a target of the attack. As of writing, no-one has yet been arrested in conjunction with Berta’s murder. Gustavo’s safety is at stake.

The EITI conference and Berta’s murder may seem unrelated but they both stress how treacherous it can be to ensure that natural resource exploitation – be it oil, gas, minerals, forest, water, land – is carried out in line with internationally agreed human rights norms, in particular the principles of meaningful participation, non-discrimination and accountability.

While in many resource-rich countries, communities and NGOs have often spoken out against extractive projects that brought few, if any, socio-economic benefits for local populations, nowhere has there been such strong opposition to what is being called “extractivism” as in Latin America.

Berta’s criticism of the Agua Zarca dams was not just about opposing that particular project. She questioned a development model based on the ever growing reliance on the extraction of finite natural resources (extractivism), at the expense of other more sustainable, carbon-neutral and equitable models of development. For Berta, this includes the right for communities to say no to major projects that seriously impact their lives. Berta is not alone. When I was in Lima last week, a group of Latin American NGOs mounted a campaign calling on the EITI to ensure that the possible impact that extractive activities has or can have on communities is taken into account. They asked for the EITI to request that oil, gas and mining companies disclose information on the social, environmental and climate costs associated with their projects. Given the potential of the EITI, the NGOs were calling on the initiative to explore how to include social and environmental information in its global standard and for the EITI to define what it can contribute to the debate on climate change in the sector.

Although the new 2016 EITI standard, released during the EITI Global Conference in Lima, acknowledges the importance of protecting civic space and includes a number of other useful refinements, it remains remarkably silent on requirements for information on social and/or environmental impacts of extractive projects. At a time when the EITI is itself moving “from reports to impact”, and in the aftermath of the Paris Climate Conference during which governments unanimously recognised the urgency of addressing climate change, it is surprising for an initiative concerned with the accountability of a high-carbon industry to continue to ignore its contribution to climate and environmental risks. In October last year, 35 international NGOs wrote an open letter to the EITI calling on its board to modify the standard in order to ensure that fossil fuels companies disclose whether or not their projects can proceed in a 1.5 or 2 degree C world. The letter seems to have fallen onto deaf ears.

The EITI seeks to be a global Standard intended to promote open and accountable management of natural resources to strengthen government and company systems, inform public debate, and enhance trust. Whilst the steps taken to include the protection of activists is welcome, for the voices of communities to be truly taken into account and for the possibility to diversify emerging economies, improvements should be made to ensure that the initiative reflects the legal and economic realities of sustainability, climate change, human rights and natural resource depletion. Otherwise, the EITI will struggle to remain relevant in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment.

About Elisa Peter
Elisa Peter is the Executive Director of Publish What You Pay, a coalition of more than 800 civil society organizations promoting transparency and accountability in the extractive industry. Previously, she was senior political advisor to The Elders, a group of former Heads of State and Nobel Prize winners working together to bring peace and justice in the world. She also served as the Head of the United Nations’ liaison office with civil society from 2006 to 2012. She holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Towards social-environmental transparency

The demand for socio-environmental information regarding extractive activities, in order to assess their real costs, inform the debate and strengthen public participation in decision-making on policies and mining, oil and gas projects is felt increasingly strong in Latin America. At the same time, several countries in the region are involved, in different stages and with varying degrees of participation and legitimacy, in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) as an opportunity to improve access to information and governance in these sectors. In this context, national needs are necessarily permeating the EITI processes in the region, where there is a call to include specific commitments to socio-environmental information. However, in some instances, the inclusion of these commitments has been hampered by the fact that the international EITI standard does not specifically address this issue, although it recognizes the need for the initiative to adapt to national contexts.

Faced with the above situation, the Latin American Network on Extractive Industries (RLIE in Spanish) undertook the completion of this study to deepen the knowledge of the national EITI processes in the region and the role that demands for socio-environmental information have played in such processes. From this further understanding, we present a number of recommendations for strengthening the EITI agenda and make it more relevant not only to the region, but also for other countries in the world, through the inclusion of a socio-environmental agenda. To do this, we analyzed the processes of Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, as well as the Philippines and Mongolia as examples of good practices.

It is necessary to mention that the completion and publication of this study was supported by Publish What You Pay (PWYP) and the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), who have played a key role in this process. Therefore, we take this brief space to extend to them our gratitude for all the work carried out.

The environment is material

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The need for fiscal transparency in the extractive sector has been well established. If payments are kept hidden from the public, opacity can facilitate corruption, mismanagement and waste – not only will citizens fail to benefit from their resources, some will actively be harmed by extraction. Without being able to follow the money, it is more difficult for citizens to hold their governments to account and ensure that natural resource revenues are spent properly. But what of social-environmental costs? If communities are to truly benefit from their natural resources, and be protected from the negative effects of extraction, social-environmental costs must be published. When it comes to natural resource management, they form an indispensable piece of the puzzle.

What is social-environmental transparency?

Social-environmental transparency covers a wide range of issues, but at its heart it aims to make public information related to the environmental and social costs and effects of extraction. This could include how much water is being consumed by a mining project, fines paid by a company regarding environmental violations or environmental fees paid with regards to mitigation plans.

Why is it crucial?What next?

Countries are already looking at – and looking for – social-environmental data. It is a constantly echoed concern in Latin America, and elsewhere in the world Mongolia, Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mozambique, Norway and Zambia have already incorporated environmental costs in their implementation of EITI.

RLIE and Publish What You Pay have therefore decided to campaign together on this crucial issue. Our first step has been to commission a report that examines the importance of social-environmental issues to Latin American civil society and communities and assesses how – and whether – the EITI could prove a useful tool towards the publication of social-environmental data.

Environmental organisations around the world have recently sent a letter to the EITI Board and Secretariat, calling for the standard to take into account the climate risk. This is another information of how environmental information is becoming increasingly important for and demanded by various sector of society.

The environment isn’t a soft or an anti-modernity issue, it is material and intrinsically linked to the value and viability of an extractive project. It’s time to catch-up and incorporate environmental costs into all conversations about making natural resources work.

Latin American contributions to the EITI: environment and social engagement

On May 19, 20 and 21, the XI Forum on the Extractive Industries of the Latin American Network on the Extractive Industries (RLIE) was held in Quito, comprising 12 Latin American organizations and, since more than a year ago, Publish What You Pay (PWYP). Moreover, since its creation in 2009, this network has maintained a close partnership with the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).

Representatives of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico came together in the Ecuadorean capital to reflect and debate the impact of the mining boom period in the region. They also tackled the challenges that our countries are facing at this time, when the prices of different minerals have been dropping progressively while oil prices have been plummeting.

They tried to analyze the impact that extractivism has had and still has on the economy, public finance, social and environmental policy, decentralization and transparency, engagement and prior consultation. And, of course, they broached the issue of continuing to search for existent or future alternatives to this supposed development model which leaves behind massive environment deterioration, human rights violations and extensive greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change.

Among the debated issues, there was one that gained special significance, standing apart from the dynamics observed in the countries: the fact that, instead of seeking alternatives to this model, governments set out to take it one step further. This way, they are trying to compensate for the price decline by increasing production and stretching the extractivist boundary.
In order to do so – as well as to lower the costs for the companies that develop the projects – several Latin American governments have taken actions aimed at weakening the regulation of mining and oil production activities, especially those relating to population and environment protection. That is, activities which make it easier for companies to obtain environmental licenses and other types of permits that are necessary in order to get access to the territories. This came with a bigger centralization of the decision making process to the detriment of the engagement from the population and local governments.

All this paints an alarming outlook that prompts the region’s civil society to search for creative ways of taking action, some of which include the strengthening of the mechanisms of information and engagement in the extractive sector-related policies and especially in environmental regulations policies.

There are different ways to achieve this. At the RLIE, we believe that a possible course of action would be to generate more transparency for the resources managed by the companies and governments in order to prevent, mitigate and – in exceptional cases – compensate for the environmental impacts that lead to damage for the population. On this basis, we believe it is vitally important that the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which is increasingly present in our region, incorporate the obligation to generate information on this issue. This follows closely after what the civil society of Colombia and Peru has outlined – and most assuredly, what the civil society of Mexico will outline.

To that effect, the dissemination of all the documentation related to the environmental impact evaluation procedures might be boosted, for example, in order to facilitate social engagement in said procedures. Another option would be that companies start publicizing the payments they make in order to comply with the obligations set forth in the environmental impact authorizations once they get approved in connection with any actions necessary to prevent damages. Another alternative would be that governments release information about the budget they assign to extractive activity oversight which may allow for the timely discovery of bad practices and to properly sanction the responsible parties.

But all these measures will not suffice if others are not implemented at the same time, in order to strengthen the civil society’s engagement in the national EITI processes. Barring that, it is not possible to rely on standards which would meet the demands and needs that these countries have. Furthermore, the processes would become mere exercises in legitimating governments, companies and extractive activities instead of substantive changes for the population. We have the example of the experiences in Guatemala and Honduras, where the EITI was implemented outside the purview of the independent civil society and extractivism criticism. Therefore, it is also important that, within the Latin American region, we encourage more effective and inclusive engagement spaces that are coercion-free and co-optative , in line with the efforts made on other fronts.

On this basis, we will be working at the RLIE and alongside our allies to include these issues in the EITI, for which a key moment will be the next EITI Global Conference scheduled to take place in Lima on February 25 and 26, 2016. It will be the first time that this event is held in Latin America, which is why it should be a great opportunity to make our voices heard clearly. We encourage you to join us on this path and to join our campaign as we will continue to update you about it in the coming months.

Aroa de la Fuente – Fundar, Center for Research and Analysis
Coordinator with the Latin American Network on the Extractive Industries (RLIE)
Member of the PWYP Board and Global Council

Latin American Network on the Extractive Industries

The Latin American Network on the Extractive Industries (RLIE in Spanish) was formed in 2009 in response to concerns by Latin American CSOs about the impact of mining and oil extraction in region. Based on this common interest, the coalition’s objective is to ensure a continuous space for Latin American civil society to meet and work together to influence public policies on the extractive industries, with an emphasis on transparency, participation, guaranteeing human rights and protecting the environment. The network is currently made up of 13 organisations from eight countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru. It joined PWYP in 2014 and represents the region on the PWYP Global Council.