Natural resources exploitation in Latin America violates human rights

Iván Cepeda wrote to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in February about Colombia's Argos cement corporation. Colombian congressperson Cepeda, who leads the MOVICE human rights group, was testifying as to the dangers of corporate dominion over natural resources. He's part of a growing movement of Latin Americans who reject exploitation of water, land, minerals, and oil on grounds that human rights are being abused, in addition to national wealth being commandeered by the already rich.

In the process of acquiring 31.3 thousand acres, Argos, fifth largest cement producer in Latin America, sixth largest in the United States, used paramilitary groups to force farm families off land thereby expediting land transfers.

Currently, big mining operations in Latin America are facing a wave of strikes, marches, and demonstrations. Local people are resisting land takeovers and degradation of forests and waterways. In Panama, for example, two protesters died recently as the indigenous Ngabe Buglé protested government plans to remove trees from 12,500 acres to get at copper reserves estimated at 17 million tons.

In Argentina, renewed struggle over environmental contamination at the Bajo La Alumbrera copper and gold mine, the nation's largest open pit operation, left 24 wounded, and dozens arrested.  The owner is Swiss and Canadian financed Xstrata Corporation. After several years of protests against the Canadian-owned Famatina gold mine, residents of nearby La Rioja recently blocked mine access for over three weeks as solidarity demonstrations spread nationwide.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala declared a state of emergency in Dec. 2011, when local mobilizations forced work stoppage at the $5 billion open pit Conga copper and gold mine in northern Peru.  Arriving in Lima on February 17, the "Great National March for Water" protested contamination and entrapment of water at the mine. Conga is an extension of the nearly Yanacocha operation, the world's second largest gold mine.  Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation controls both.

Uruguayan analyst Raul Zibechi believes, "Struggle for wealth held in common is first on the agenda" for Latin American progressives. He applauds "citizen assemblies that block giant businesses enjoying state support." Zibechi notes Paraguayan resistance to mostly Brazilian landowners who converted millions of acres of forest land to soya plantations.  For Paraguay, the cost of becoming the world's fourth largest soy producer is irreversible soil damage and displaced populations.

According to an Oxfam International report released late last year, "In developing countries, as many as 227 million hectares of land - an area the size of Western Europe - has been sold or leased since 2001, mostly to international investors."

Corporations, both independent and government-affiliated, and governments themselves buy or lease land to ensure food supplies, plant industrial forests, and produce biofuels. The toll, says Oxfam, includes human rights violation, environmental abuse, and undermining of sovereignty. To cut back on foreign land takeovers, Argentina recently restricted foreign ownership to 15 percent of its territory and curtailed property extensions.  

In November 2011, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported on land deals in Latin America and the Caribbean. While 32 countries worldwide account for 90 percent of land susceptible to large-scale acquisition, 16 of them are in Africa, eight in Latin America. The report casts Brazil and Argentina as the region's "two top land grabbing sites." Generally, "The role of the state in facilitating land deals for the most part is central in the process."

According to the Oxfam study, "Colombia through the quality of its land and water is one of the world's countries most vulnerable" to land grab. Oxfam South America coordinator Asier Hernando Malax  characterized "the land situation in Colombia as the most worrisome in the world, with the most unequal access to land." According to terra.com, "Illegal groups like paramilitaries have stolen 31 million acres from family farmers and indigenous peoples." Colombia's land surface totals 285 million acres.

Via Campesina, the global alliance espousing food sovereignty, submitted a declaration on land to the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva February 20-24, 2012. Via Campesina diagnoses general disregard for the human rights of the world's rural poor. Main points of the declaration are:

*"Sure access to and control over land and its productive resources are [tied] to enjoyment of rights consecrated in the Declaration of Human Rights and relevant international treaties."

*"The current phenomenon of land hoarding undermines these rights."

*"Hunger [worldwide] predominates in rural areas."

*"We urge the international community including development agencies and the United Nations to change policies so as to contribute to the full realization of rights for subsistence farmers and other rural workers.

*"Creation of a new instrument inside the international human rights system for protecting rural peoples is crucial."

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